My posting is a bit erratic and for that I apologize. It’s been a busy month of writing and editing as I try to make this deadline which is an issue that sort of crops up every other month. Alas. In theory, somewherepostculture has two other contributors to pick up the slack when someone gets bogged down with work. Derek, however, continues his unending quest of dying and with the start of the new school year, both he and Kait are busy with those duties as well.
In positive news, I’ve seen Kait reading a batch of new books so there should be some reviews on the horizon. Also, next month is rather dead for me (right before the incredibly busy November) so hopefully I can be a bit more consistent in my posts then too. Also, I came across a short little topic I wanted to discuss while I was editing.
Specifically, I want to spend some time on first sentences.
Pretty much every writing advice source will say that the initial sentence is very important. It’s the first impression you, as an author, get to make to your fans. Its your one chance to hook them into your book and keeping them going from line to line until the very last pages.
And it’s a bit of a lie.
I’m not saying that first sentences aren’t important for they really are. But it’s not truly the first impression you make on your reader. Common knowledge teaches that first impressions are important as they form the lasting associations a person has for that work (or individual or whatever). Anecdotal evidence abounds to collaborate this position and there are even psychological studies which delve into it. I won’t dwell on this fact further but I do want to say that, as a writer, you are making an impression even before someone opens up and reads that line.
In this day and age, book covers are the first window into your work. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of writers, what makes that book cover is well out of your hands. But there is one component of the cover which you have some control over. Well before we had lavish artistic pieces adorning the protective sheafs, we had first line of contact between creator and audience: the title.
I hate coming up with titles. Unless I have an idea for a title before the work, I can almost never come up with anything I like. They are really hard to make and it’s for the same reason that writers struggle for that first line on the page. The title is supremely important. It sets expectations in your reader as well as being your largest chance to get a potential reader to pause in the bookstore and pick up your book. It needs to be eye-catching. It needs to be inviting and entice the fantasies of idle passer-bys. It’s a lot riding on what amounts to, on average, three to six words.
I make this comment because I’m going to call out my sister. She is finishing a short story tentatively called Sacrifice. I understand what she was going for but the issue with that title is that it’s too generic. It tells the reader nothing. I’m certain there are droves of stories through history all called Sacrifice. There’s nothing in the word itself which entices me to look into the story. It’s the equivalent of Sister Marjorie Brushes her Teeth.
Writing is a strange little art. It’s less like sculpture and more like performance. With a painting, it takes seconds for the audience to really consume the piece. I don’t have to truly sell the idea of the painting, I can sell the painting itself. Show it off and people can decide whether they like it or not. The first impression is almost the only impression it gives. Obviously, there is more complexity to paintings and sculpture and longer viewings can reveal more about the piece but what you see is really what you get.
A novel, however, is not the same. A writer is more of a showman. You need to entice your audience to step through the curtain and purview the wonders you’ve locked away in the dark and behind curtains. Each step needs to be teased. At any point, your reader can simply duck out the tent’s flap and never return. You may have the most wonderful scenes, poignant character development and thrilling action but if you can get them to take that first leap into your arms the reader is never going to see it. You need to dress up, throw on some glitter and mystery if you ever want to compete with all the authors doing the same.
There are, essentially, three important teases: the title, the first sentence and the first chapter. The title gets the reader to open the book. The first sentence locks them to your page and the first chapter should insure that they’ll never put it down.
Of course, there are plenty of examples where poor titles or lackluster opening sentences have not held a book back. ‘Twilight’ is not a particularly inspiring title. ‘My name is Kvothe, pronounced nearly the same as “quothe.”‘ is about as dry as they come. But both Twilight and Name of the Wind managed to be hugely successful despite these flaws. So, there is some silver lining to all this unnecessary drama I’m wrapping around this first impression spiel. But why give your work that risk–that handicap–of a weak appearance? You wouldn’t let your child head out to his first formal dance with his fly undone or shoes untied. Sure, he may still impress his date and she may even find a certain charm in his inept demeanor. Ultimately, however, it’ll be his personality that wins her heart so you want that to be the first thing she sees when he arrives on her door.
I will end on a positive note. The reason I wrote this post wasn’t because of my sister’s bland title but because I absolutely love the first sentence of my new short story. I didn’t even write it: Kait did. It’s important to learn from our weaknesses, I think, but to also celebrate our successes. My favourite kind of first impression is one that leaves me immediately unbalanced. It intrigues me to be left a puzzle that can only be solved by continuing on. I’ll always step through that curtain if there’s a sense that what lies beyond will make some sense of the bizarre and strange greeting you give me.
So here we go:
“With stooped shoulders, gangly walk and a morose disposition, you would not think Ed was the Buddha.”